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San Diego has the highest number of “excess deaths” among California’s 12 largest county jail systems, according to a new study commissioned by the civilian review board that oversees the Sheriff’s Department.

The independent review also found that while Black and Latino people are more likely to be locked up in San Diego County jails, White men and women are more likely to die behind bars.

“San Diego County is the only county with a statistically significant number of excess deaths,” the analysis from Analytica Consulting concluded.

Researchers defined “statistical significance” as a result that was unlikely to occur by chance and likely attributable to some underlying cause.

“Most other counties have generally fewer total deaths than what is projected by their county mortality rates,” the study said. “This finding corroborates previous reporting suggesting that in-custody deaths are the most acute in San Diego County.”

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The report, which examined in-custody deaths between 2010 and 2020 in the 12 most populated California counties, was released as another inmate was found dead on Monday.

The Sheriff’s Department confirmed the death inside the Men’s Central Jail downtown — the seventh this year — but declined to specify what happened or release the man’s name.

Researchers scaled the size of each of the dozen county jails to the San Diego jail population in order to reflect the number of deaths that might be expected based on a common number of inmates.

This approach, researchers wrote, allowed them to identify which county jails had more or fewer deaths than expected.

Three counties reported more deaths than their average jail population would have suggested. And two of those — Fresno and Santa Clara counties — exceeded the expectation by just three cases.

San Diego County, meanwhile, reported 141 in-custody deaths during the 10-year period against an expectation of 117 fatalities — the highest among all counties surveyed.

The analysis was commissioned last year by the county Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, the agency that provides civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s and Probation departments.

The findings echo the results of a six-month investigation by The San Diego Union-Tribune published in 2019 and a state audit issued in February.

Both of those studies found that deaths in San Diego County jails were far higher than those in other jurisdictions. The state report said conditions in the jails were so dire that new legislation was needed to force changes.

Spokeswoman Lt. Amber Baggs said the Sheriff’s Department appreciates the commitment of the review board and will continue to examine all of the audits and reviews that have been conducted related to in-custody deaths.

“As you’ve seen, we have already been moving forward to implement many of the recommendations that came about as a result of the state audit,” she said. “We will continue to make needed improvements to our outdated facilities, such as the George Bailey Detention Facility, and move forward with the other recommendations.”

The changes made to date have yet to reduce the inmate mortality rate.

In addition to the seven inmates who died in San Diego County custody so far this year, 18 people died in 2021 — the highest number ever for the county.

The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board ordered the report early last year, after a spate of criticism from activists and relatives of people who died in San Diego jails. The study cost just under $150,000, said Paul Parker, the review board’s executive officer.

Parker said the Analytica Consulting report confirms community concerns, investigative reporting and audit findings about the rate of San Diego County jail deaths.

“Its findings expand upon and provide further clarity to the data already in the public domain, thus painting the clearest picture yet about this critical issue,” he said.

Parker said he was particularly troubled by the higher risk of drug-related deaths in San Diego County jails and the high risk of suicides, in San Diego jails and others.

“Another interesting finding that should also be the topic of much more research was that White people are more likely to die in San Diego County detention facilities while Black people are more likely to be in county detention facilities,” he said.

According to the report, Black people make up 5 percent of the county population but 15 percent of jail inmates.

White people account for 47 percent of San Diego County residents but 42 percent of the people in sheriff’s custody, the study said. Even so, 54 percent of all jail deaths are White people.

Hispanics make up 33 percent of the county and jail populations but 27 percent of in-custody deaths, the study found.

The review also found notable differences in San Diego County when it came to inmates who had yet to be sentenced for the crime for which they were being held.

The study found that 116 of the men and women who died in custody between 2010 and 2020 had not not been sentenced, almost double the 65 expected deaths for that category.

Only four other counties exceeded that expectation — all of them by single digits.

The study also said public oversight of in-custody deaths lacks key information.

State databases should be expanded to include information about inmate arrest, booking, conviction and sentencing data; the facility where deaths occur; the average daily population of the facility where deaths are reported and the number and type of mental health staff at jails where inmates die, researchers said.

The report, which is due to be considered by the review board at its monthly meeting Tuesday, also recommends that more analysis be performed.

Among other things, the report suggests more research be done to determine which inmates are most at risk of dying in custody; the role of mental illness in jail deaths; and the relationship between deaths and staffing.

San Diego County has paid millions of dollars in recent years to the families of people who have died in sheriff’s custody. The money has come directly from taxpayers because the county is self-insured for such jury awards and legal settlements.

Parker plans to ask the review board to schedule a town hall meeting to discuss the study findings.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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